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`Real talks' of S. Asian summit go on outside ceremonial halls

By Tavleen SinghSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 1986



New Delhi

At this year's summit of seven South Asian nations, regional issues have been sidelined by tensions and discussions over specific bilateral matters. Technically, bilateral issues are taboo at meetings of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), because of fears that contentious matters might ground such forums before they even have a chance to take off.

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In the south Indian city of Bangalore, where the second annual SAARC summit ended Monday, two bilateral matters dominated all others. They were:

Rising tensions between India and Pakistan - over security and nuclear matters.

The possibility that a solution to Sri Lanka's civil conflict could emerge from talks between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene.

SAARC was founded a year ago to forge greater regional cohesion and coordination. It groups India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldive Islands in an alliance aimed at improving the health and welfare of their people, who comprise nearly a quarter of the world's population.

Inside the specially built conference halls in Bangalore, where the official talks were held, there was much talk of cooperation in such noncontroversial subjects as agriculture and population control. However, the real talks, observers agree, were conducted outside - in what were officially described as ``informal meetings'' on bilateral matters.

The most important of these meetings took place within minutes of Sri Lankan President Jayewardene's arrival, when he and the Indian prime minister disappeared for a working lunch.

Officials were tight-lipped about what exactly was discussed. But by Sunday, it was clear that significant progress had been made because leaders of militant Tamil groups, based in Madras, India, and the Tamil Nadu chief minister, who is closely aligned to them, also joined the talks.

The Indian government's main objective as mediator, sources say, was to get the militants to agree to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government. By Monday, this likelihood seemed to be very much on the cards.

On the Indo-Pakistani front, however, there was much less optimism.

Relations between the two countries are at a particularly low ebb and whatever little ``SAARC spirit'' there may have been, disappeared before the Pakistani prime minister even arrived because of allegations against India made by Pakistan's foreign secretary, Abdus Sattar.

Mr. Sattar told a packed press conference that Pakistan was apprehensive about recent press reports that there had been large scale troop movement in the past 10 days on the Indian side of the border.

Indian officials refused to formally reply to the Pakistani remarks, but proceeded to leak a counter-statement to the press.

The Indian side also made it clear that, on account of the foreign secretary's ``provocative remarks,'' Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was unlikely to be in a cooperative mood when he talked to Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo. This was their first meeting ever.

Meanwhile, back in the SAARC conference halls lesser members of the official delegations pored over what has been achieved in the past year, and tried to come up with a plan for future cooperation.

It was decided, for instance, that the SAARC secretariat would be set up in Kathmandu, Nepal, that India would pay 35 percent of its costs, and Pakistan 25 percent. The remaining costs would be divided between the smaller countries with the smallest, the Maldives and Bhutan, paying five percent each.

A calendar of SAARC events of the past year, released in Bangalore, reveals that the association has held a series of seminars in the 10 areas of cooperation outlined at the last summit.

From these discussions and meetings, there is beginning to emerge a degree of cooperation in fields like controlling drug abuse and improving the lot of south Asian women and children.

The association has resolved to work, for example, toward universal immunization of children by 1990 and for the drastic reduction in diarrheal deaths by using oral rehydration therapy and introducing iodized salt.

As for the future of SAARC, observers say, its success depends on how seriously it is taken by India.

Nobody witnessing the pegeantry and pomp that turned the Bangalore summit into a spectacular affair would suspect that SAARC ranks quite low on India's list of priorities.

But this, in fact, appears to be the case.

High-level policymakers in the Indian Foreign Ministry have indicated that India only joined SAARC to prevent the smaller countries in the region ganging up against India.

Resentment over this still apparently colors Indian's view of SAARC and unless this changes, analysts say, genuine south Asian regional cooperation will remain a dream.